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I had the privilege of sitting down with this year’s Newell Flather Leadership in Public Art Awardee for Emerging Leadership in the field, Rixy. Rixy is an Interdisciplinary Street Artist from Roxbury, Massachusetts, bred by Latinx Caribbean blood. Her self-taught and formal education is focused on a sensually sculptural awareness, worldbuilding through painted installations and public art. Join me in celebrating Rixy by listening to her story of how she invites us into more just worlds through the fantastic portals of Cúcala and how she demonstrates leading with her imagination.New England Foundation for the Arts · Public Art Spotlight: Rixy
Kamaria Carrington (KC): I am so excited to be here with the 2023 Newell Flather awardee for Emerging Leadership in the Field of Public Art, Rixy. And Rixy is an interdisciplinary street artist.
Rixy (R): Thank you for having me. I'm excited to share, and I really appreciate just sharing this space and time with you right now. All of y’all.
KC: Yes. Let's get into it. So, what else do you want us to know about you as a person? Not the resume. I mean, you can sprinkle the resume if you want, but what do you really want us to know about you?
R: The first thing that comes to mind when I try to split the resume person thing, I'm just a big explorer. I think oftentimes I use visual analogies to really kind of help translate and communicate, but I think of myself as somewhere between a Dora and Indiana Jones of discovering things. And I don't always know what I'm looking for, but the curiosity or the want to just explore and experience all these new things about people, about the world, that's just very embedded in who I am and comes out again through translation of my work. But it's very much a curious cat that's like, "Oh, how does that do that?" Or, "Why does that do that?" Or just loving to learn what I can about other things, that it's just not my own experience.
And I think that really does lead me sometimes more in the dark and sometimes to really beautiful lit places as well. I think that's what keeps me, as a person, so just interested in, again, constantly going through a new day every day of, "All right, what can we get to do and feel today and think about and touch today? This is interesting."
KC: That's beautiful.
R: Thank you.
KC: I'm wondering, in terms of your curiosity, what shaped your understanding of what public art is and what it can be, especially as a self-taught street artist?
R: So public art for me, I'm going to say was one of the first types of art I was introduced to as a kid. Growing up in the '90s, and in my community, I'm from Roxbury, first generation of immigrants here. So, the first art that I saw was graffiti, was architecture, was playgrounds and things that are living in my day-to-day, not within some institutional barrier or confines of what art was. So, for me, public art really was a placemaking thing, again, to help me build that map of like, "Oh, I know where I'm at. It's the indigenous mural in Jackson Square. Beautiful. I'm in JP. I'm in Roxbury." Oh, the pear-shaped bronze sculpture, word, I'm in Dorchester." And it was always a way for me to, again, find those markings of exploring and thinking about communities. When I say that I'm a self-taught street artist, versus a public artist, versus a muralist or things, it's like, that's my school. That's where I grew up. And it was not only that my work or what I'm doing is for community and on the streets, but that's where I'm learning as well.
I think about that a lot, just how much that art was probably some of the first art that I experienced through media, through walls and things like that. Or even when you're wearing clothes, or it's all of that in some sense is accessible public street art. I'm like, "Oh yes, this is my day-to-day art."
KC: That's so beautiful. And, I guess, I'm wondering, what anchors your vision of public art making?What anchors how you create?
R: For my particular tool belt in public art, I guess I'm seeing how we can continue building steps for the future. Again, this one person can't change history. I can't also completely change the future either. And I see public art as another step in putting it in our community. Again, putting those conversations or highlighting something within our community and what anchors that vision is being able to take up space with a conversation right now. , I definitely debated a lot with the role of an artist, and you'll hear that line of artists are historians in a lot of ways. And I always was confused with that, but I was like, you know what? In this present time, I'm trying to have a conversation that we're having here in my community, in my streets, by my house, by your community. And so public art to me is very much a timekeeper, and it's a placemaker. There's just so much of it that becomes this artifact of what's happening in the public.
And that anchors me to want to remember time. How can I make a mark and go back to that memory or go back to this place and experience what it meant for these people, for myself? I have terrible memory. So art for me does have a lot to reflect a story that I was having at that moment or where my mindset, or where we were as people at that time. I don’t know, public art to me is just so fun that we can... You have an office building and another community center and a bunch of apartments, and then you have a sculpture or a mural, and it's like, that's now part of our life. And that just makes me excited that I can be a magician, like "Ta-da. This thing is living with us now. Yay."
R: And it's bringing joy. It's bringing more inclusive love or more interesting dialogue and very transparent reflections about things. I don't know, help all of us get out of stuck programming and a map made by somebody else.
KC: That's so interesting that you've called public art so many different things, just in the few minutes that we’ve been on the phone.
R: Public art is the textbook word. I get it.
R: I get it. It's one box. But it's really so much more than that.
KC: Yeah, and I'm so excited about how you see it as a landmark, as a disruptor, as a historic bookmark, as so many things. And I'm just wondering if we could go behind that and talk about the process and the materializing of it, because I think that's also one of the things that's so notable about you and in your leadership, the quality of your leadership that invites other people into that. I'm wondering how would you describe your leadership style and who has inspired you and who is currently inspiring you?
R: I have so much want and integrity or initiative to want to see these things. And the style that I love to adopt the most in what I'm doing is leading by example. I'm not really a fan of leadership that's like commanding when they can't do it themselves. You know what I mean?
R: How is big boss going to tell me to clean up, but he can't pick up? Well, they can't pick up a broom. Sorry, patriarchy makes me think it's a he. But it's this system that is very downward hierarchal, and I'm just not looking to be a leader to be above. I'm looking to be a leader to help all of us amplify and be in the space together. And if I happen to have a strength or a focus on helping you in that direction, that doesn't mean you... you're probably going to help me in other directions too. And often I see if I'm going to do that though, I think the best way I love learning to lead and helping and guiding and supporting by getting my own hands dirty. That's the best way for me to learn something and show it.
Even I teach as well, and that for me is another process where it's like, "Hey, I have students and I can help them and support them, but what if they have a question I don't know?" I'm going to go look it up, look into it, do what I can and come right back to you so I could teach you that based on another relative level versus do it like that. It's just like, no, that's not how we learn. Because now I learned something new and we learned something together.
So that has been a big thing for me leadership-wise, is just to knock down the door for other people, and for all of us more so. And that's a lot easier to do with public art, I would think, because you have more folks around you and community that you get to talk to. It's a privilege to be able to talk to this many community members. Inspiring me? I do see that I get inspired by whoever, like I said it could be my students. They inspire me oftentimes where I'm like, "Oh man, you know what? I got to go hard because that was cool," and they just made think about something and maybe that refueled me again. Or maybe something I had to gain with them is a different understanding. And so that always is inspiring. I think one of my favorite ways to be inspired is by people that don't do what I do.
R: Because on the most humanistic level, we're going to compare what we're doing as if one of us is right or wrong. And so with other artists and visual artists, I don't necessarily want to compare what we're doing. You have your own thing within the same maybe lane. But when I learn from other leaders that are community organizers or other creative leaders doing, even arts admin, but musicians, dancers, photographer, whoever the case is, it's so beautiful to be able to see someone again, have that dedication, that power, that integrity, the vulnerability, and seeing it in their way. And you're like, "Wow, you know what? I don't know what you're doing. I don't get it because it's not my lane. That's cool."
R: But go off. That's so beautiful. And that for me is because I don't understand it and I'm so separated; I can see it and love it a lot better from afar. And so, I get very inspired by, I think I go to more non painting, visual art, public art things than I do my own lane sometimes. Just because of it kind of helps refresh and detach, and try to not feel so personal sometimes. I'm also inspired by... I mean granted the other awardees of this award I've been able to meet and work with. And they have opened again, insights in like, "Wow, I didn't know that was a thing.” I didn't know I can learn how to do that or that or that. So, I worked with Kate some time ago with now-
KC: Kate Gilbert.
R: Kate Gilbert, yes. I worked with Now + There and their accelerator program, and it was like I was a sponge. It was just like, "Oh my gosh," I didn't, again, that wasn't accessible information. So it's like, "Wow, thank you so much for showing me this thing I might not know completely." I can gain and help funnel that ecosystem. So, Kate Gilbert, I mean ProBlak, Marquis, all these amazing people that are also doing the work, and even though it's not the exact same people, but I'm just like, "You're so passionate in what you do that it inspires me to keep figuring out whatever I'm figuring out." So that I think is my favorite source of inspiration is to see other people dedicated in their lane. I'm just like, "Yes. All right, let's keep going."
KC: Thank you for bringing those names into the conversation too, because I think this is one of the wonderful things about talking to you is hearing the echoes of the ecosystem as they've been nourished. I'm so curious about how you developed the world of Cúcala. Can you share what this world building is inviting us to imagine?
R: So oftentimes I talk about it really exists because for me it does. It's a way of truly making this world that I would love to experience part of what I'm actually experiencing now. Cúcala, this world where we get to highlight the survival and healing of so many of our cultures and people. That doesn't feel fake to me. It just kind of feels like a reflection of some of the practices I want to continue adopting in my real world.
So, the world really is a translation again, of me trying to figure out the one that I'm experiencing. And unfortunately, I can't control the mess or the things that are happening in our reality. So, when I have Cúcala, it's this way for me to funnel my desires and the desires of other people, the desires of folks that are in my community that I would live in our own little tribe and village with, and the people that create that familial type of energy with folks that I get to meet and work with. And I feel like everybody's finding their own sense of that world. So, developing that world is this running cartoon in my mind where it's like, all right, now we go to Roxbury. Do you know where Roxbury is on the map? Again, Dora the Explorer is just always running.
That's really helped me to do is just continue to work on that advocacy through this type of work. And especially if I have some things to say, I'm going to say it through the work because we've been talking about it for a bit. So now let's take up some space, say a big message and put a big bold color on top so you can notice what we have to do. And that's really what Cúcala has been able to do for me. And my intention is that invites others to imagine as well. We don't have to see our world so limited. I also do believe in the control I have to manifest the world that I want to hopefully live in as best as possible. As much as I can control, that’s what I can do. So,I hope it invites and imagines others to have that world of, what do you see your safe place to be, that you get to be your full self? And sometimes I don't always get to feel that here, and we don't always get to feel it. So, I want to be able to imagine it and visually manifest it and then work that into our communal personal healing.
KC: There's a sovereignty to imagination.
R: Absolutely, yes.
KC: And I think that your work really articulates that. And how big it is, I think really is one of the ways that it invites us in and how detailed it is, because also, I've seen the smaller cardboard that you've worked on and I'm like, "Oh, this is a piece of that. I know this is a piece of this world. I know this world."
KC: And I just wanted to know if you could just share with us where you've mapped Cúcala all around?
R: I love that you used the word mapped. Again, my visuals, it makes so much more sense. I would love to have a more adult suit-and-tie processed mind, but I don't. I don't mind living in a cartoon. So mapping it on Massachusetts and New England, all of it, I, again, work very intentionally. I love thinking about these layers. I need to feel good if I'm going to do this work and I want others to feel good. I don't want there to... If I can minimize error, minimize ripples in the matrix, and it's going to happen regardless. And again, we're going to freestyle flow, but I've focused on putting the work in the hotspots of the communities that I'm personally attached to. And that started predominantly in Dorchester and Roxbury. My first ever mural was in Dorchester, and that was before the finding of Cúcala. But when I look back, everything has been connected and I've just had to find what it was connected to.
So, it started in Dorchester and again, in the places that I saw when I was growing up, and I was like, "Wow, this world is mine, but there's something that's not my world here." It's not actually mine. This wasn't made for me necessarily. You were saying it's built from system. So, I putting my public art in those places that have that constant reminder for other people that you might not see what's yours, but this is yours. And now you are here. Now this is for you and you can continue being here hopefully. So, Dorchester, my recent one in Roxbury with Now + There, and oftentimes I get invited to other communities. So doing work out there too, and learning other communities and how I can connect. Allston So there's also this idea of I don't need to just stay where I'm from, but how can I have that conversation for other people I know also want to have that conversation. Chelsea, East Boston, very immigrant, Latino town as well, and in Lawrence and then outside of the city. So, trying to do these different cities and areas to where I know people are connected and I know why I'm doing it. I'm not doing it just for the new gentrified apartment building going up and taking over. It's like, no, no, no. This is for the people that are still here. Recently been working my way around Latin America and the Caribbeans and trying to get closer to home or my parents' home. And that has been great, kind of bringing it back in that circle of, "Oh, this is really where that energy was born for me."
And then I'll get to say that conversation to places I don't have connection to, and then learn new languages along the way. So, it's really constantly growing in a way where I get to use it as an invitation to connect and converse with communities. It's my excuse honestly. I was like, listen, "If I could paint and explore and learn about your culture, your community at the same time, this is a gift to you. Thank you. Here's a mural about all the beauty that I learned while I was here, I try to offer something when I travel and get to do the work where I'm like, how can we engage and connect? So that's been great with the landscaping.
KC: Wow, you 're making me think about what imagination is in diaspora, just how much possibility's in there. This question of what portals did you open in each location for our imagination. I'm wondering if that's something that you may even still be learning about?
R: Absolutely. I love that people think that I know a lot of stuff and I do know things, but again, it's an invitation to myself to explore it. I'm tinkering with thoughts, with experiences, and I'm like, "Oh, how do I cook up this recipe with all these ingredients I found?” So, it definitely feels like a portal to have specific conversations, and its different recipes. So, say again, if I'm in Central Square and I'm hearing certain conversations, or I see the demographic or the flow of the people, it's like, "Okay, how can I open a portal and think about large brown women, nutrition, health, healthy fat, like avocados because we're healthy fat." We're healthy thick, and that is also so naturally part of where we come [from] as well. So, I was like, that's a specific conversation and a portal that, "You know what? I don't think a lot of these people realize maybe where a lot of certain fruits and food might be coming from."
And it can bring us into a portal of transporting maybe to a certain place, or again, into the Cúcala world of where we would thrive off of these weird, nutritious fruits and food that I love fruits. They're so weird looking, they look like alien eggs, sometimes a dragon fruit, and its spikiness or star fruit, how is it the shape of an actual star when you cut it? It's so cool. So, it's each piece gets to know that's a portal of looking at fruits in this very odd, unique, absurd way or something. And so definitely I think each piece brings a portal to using our vessel to filter out thoughts, filter questions of other worlds beyond that town, that community.
I like using it as a bridge to connect to a little bit of everybody and my pieces if it's like I get to connect back to my mother's land and my ancestry, but then I also get to connect to my beautiful women around me and their fashion sense or the future of architecture and design. And I get to bring all these things together. And I think that makes an interesting portal to allow access to knowledge to other people.
KC: Yeah, absolutely. So, who are the folks that you invite into the process along the way?
R: I think traditionally with street art, you might not be talking to a lot of people, and that's where the textbook of public art comes in. I really like inviting the owners. The people that are going to wake up to that mural every day are the first ones I like to talk to.
A building can easily be like, "Oh, we want a mural on the side of our building," and they're walking in from this door, but the mural's over here, they might not see that mural all the time. What about the people that are driving up that street? What about the apartment complex that faces that? And then what about across or down the street? I love the vicinity of who's there and who's working for it. Who's helping me put this on? Who's sponsoring it? I mean I have to consider all of those legs too, but that's probably one of my first things that I do with the mural is actually go to the site by myself, chill for the day and see who sees this place regularly.
And that's when I get to figure out, "Okay, there are two buses that come this way. There's a school bus that stops there. Great. I have to think about kids. There's three restaurants here." And again, sometimes the animals too, there's like greenery I have to think about. There are birds that always like to live in the walls and holes. And so, the work really does think about all of that in one space because I don't want to take up space and feel it like a gentrifier. I want to be like, "No, let's compliment and embed it in this living system." So, I like to invite the folks that are going to see it. Listen, that's for you.
There’s this weird balance. Again, I love and hate living in the middle, but it's like there's this balance, because it's like it's for you, but I also want to introduce you guys to this.
And so, I want this to be able to come over here. And then at the same time, I want to help y'all leave this comfort zone and challenge you to not see this as so scary and go over there. And if I can make all these bridging islands, it's like you're invited. And again, I think that's important to help with time and help that ecosystem of the area still filter through where nobody feels stuck or nobody feels like, "Oh, she put a painting of a woman, that means only women could live here." No, no, no. There's other things invited into this conversation and hopefully we see that and expand versus limit it.
KC: Yeah. And I imagine that you're been gathering a lot of skills around doing that over time. When you think about when first started versus now.
R: Oh my gosh. Oh no.
KC: What are some of the lessons in that of being a bridge maybe even to some portals or worlds that people haven't seen yet?
R: Oh man. The first lesson that I like to tell people if they want to get into public art is fluidity and flexibility. And that could be more of a logistical, not even. It's just like you don't know what's going to happen. And every site is different, every conversation, every single process. There's not one mural that has been done exactly the same as the other. And I think that's a lesson in that leadership as well as just being the artist where it's like, I have to come with that tool belt. I learned the hammer three years ago, so I have a hammer on me now. I learned a screwdriver last year, cool on me. I'm going to show up with my tool belt. What do I need to do today? And I'm going to figure out again the process or the procedure that makes sense.
And I think that's been my biggest lesson in growing is that like, hey, you are actually self-taught as well. There isn't a school for this or what I'm trying to find. So, with all those opportunities and things and the walls, every one of them has been trial and error, and has been a practice or a session where I get to ask those questions and figure out those lessons. I have injured myself. I have messed up property before by accident or not too much or messed up certain things.
I could be really slow with communication and emails and there's things all these little mini lessons, but they're different every time. And I just have to be like, you know what? It's okay to make that mistake too because I'm only going to be better than what I was last time and I could give myself that room and that grace to be like, don't expect every single thing to be the same. Don't expect every project and people that you meet to be the same. Painting is the easiest part. If you see the murals, the mural gets done in a week.
That's meditation right there, lock in with the headphones. And that is the easiest part to me. It's actually the most personal relieving part. And the hardest part is the process or the flow to get there and all the turbulence you have to go through and how much you need to be really open to those redirections were the biggest lesson.
KC: What is a lesson in leadership you want to leave with us?
R: The first thing coming to my mind is I used this analogy the other day that I stopped hating on the cheesy affirmational posters that you would see in school. Your English teacher's going to have, "If you can dream it, you can achieve it." Yeah, I love those now. And so, my biggest lesson is if you dream it, you could achieve it. If you could want to see it happen or you could see it happening, then do it. And sometimes you might not be able to get everything done right now, but if I get to do baby steps towards that thing, that makes me feel so good.
That's the biggest lesson I can see within leadership is, you might not know where you're going. You don't know what you're looking for. You might not have somebody like a team to help you with just yet, but if you are that passionate about what's going to make you feel good, go explore, go mess up a couple of times. You still going to go away with something, even if it's a couple bruises, but you learned. You know what, I got bruised, but now I know how to do it. And that's my favorite lesson with public art is just like go explore it. Go ask the questions, especially when other people might not want to do it too.
And with public art is like you have to go find it sometimes and it makes that exploring practice and I'm like, just go find it. Go find what you need to do and you'll find it. If you put that out there, it actually does come.
KC: Wow, just leading with your imagination, it sounds like, leading with your passion.
R: Yeah, that's a good one. Leading with the imagination. Because I don't know what I'm looking for, but I see it. And if I can make that in my mind somewhere, that means it actually exists. It already exists as a thought. So that's good enough to say that it exists, that now we just need the tangible thing for y'all to see it. So, I don't sound that crazy.
KC: Where do you hope to be going and what's next for you?
R: On both ends of it, as an artist and as a leader, I definitely want to just keep building bigger, again, building that world and expanding the connection to the world that's really here. So, with Elevated Thought that I work with currently, I get to envision this public art street art festival. And it was something that I pitched to them. And again, now that there's a community, there's people that I'm not just alone in that vision. I get to kind of work with a team to build that. So, a lot of what I am doing next, at least in my leadership role, is creating more opportunities and more of those visions within the community. The very on paper things where it's like we get to see these festivals, we get to continue providing. And Elevated Thought is a beautiful platform right now with Cúcala and with my personal work, I plan on creating Cúcala in the real world.
I have this studio Cúcala, which for me is my studio practice that I also get to teach through. I get to consult and direct with. I get to really, again, create the tangible world. So being able to see that that's possible, of having my own studio space where I get to invite people to come also tinker and explore and then build outside of that is so exciting for me. And that has very long-term visions of hosting international artists, doing international residencies for others and myself. Again, teaching and still creating and building through my own facility and saying, “Hey, if you need a safe place of expression and tinkering and exploring, you could come to Studio Cúcala.” And that has that mini bite of that energy for myself. And that's definitely one of my long-term blended goals.
As an artist I still envision large walls, large sculptures, large placemaking. And now I'm like, okay, I want to take up the land. I want to take up the architecture. I want to build behind them and really create these much larger, more resourced public art things, because I need the billions to create the sculpture. Can't do that one. Murals I could do with a couple of $10 cans. But to start really, again, creating the architecture of this story is one of my big... that's actually my priority dream goal and Studio Cúcala and the programming leadership again is I have the imagination, but I need the grounding that can help build that up.
Creating a lot more public art, street art, immersive invitations is I have so many different projects in my mind of how to create larger sculptures, larger placemaking things. I remember being younger again, at least in the Latinx countries I've gone to, they have sculptures larger than the Statue of Liberty and it just lives in the mountains or lives on the land. I'm like, That's, yes.
R: Let's do all these. Let's put it there. I don't know how to get there. That's the first thing where I'm just like, "I'll figure it out though."
KC: Well yeah.
R: You get to work with agencies, you get to work with folks where I can ask those questions and it gives me that little bit more of like, wow, okay, I can make all that happen. So, what's next is just bigger explorations, probably riskier explorations. You become more experienced; you get to scale the wall of a mountain now. I always just want to do more and more, but at a very healthy pace. So, there's a lot coming up, thankfully.
KC: I personally can't wait.
R: Oh, me too. Me too. And I'm excited to share it and I feel the one thing that if I could also say is art for me, the unfortunate part can feel very selfish or self-centered. Public art is, the biggest way that I can do something for all of us at the same time. And it doesn't have to feel like, "Hey, come listen to me." No, listen to a lot of things that I heard and is in my mind and like you said this the other day or you inspired me to do that. And it's all part of it. So yeah, that's the fun part.
KC: Wow. I speak for myself and probably a line of folks behind me who are just so excited to see what's next.
R: Thank you so much.
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